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Congress must reenergize bipartisan consensus on humanitarian priorities

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Earlier this month, humanitarians won a crucial victory on Capitol Hill. As part of the $1 trillion omnibus spending package, Congress approved almost $7 billion in assistance to address cascading disasters from the Middle East refugee crisis to food shortages in Africa. The single largest increase in the bill was the almost $1 billion of new money for famine relief. This new funding is important not only for the people it will help, but also for the bipartisan support marshalled to get it through Congress. 

First and foremost, the deal is critical because of the lives it will save. The global humanitarian situation is on the cusp of what the medical profession refers to as an “acute on chronic” situation. This occurs when a patient with a chronic illness experiences the sudden onset of another medical crisis that together result in the rapid deterioration in the patient’s overall condition. In this particular case, the chronic condition is the global refugee and displacement crisis, which has seen some 65 million people forced from their homes. Most of displaced come from war torn countries and are in a situation of protracted displacement that is expected to last a decade or more on average.

{mosads}The acute condition is the most serious food security crisis in the modern era that could impact at least 20 million people.  Famine was declared in South Sudan this year, after emerging in parts of Nigeria at the end of 2016. Somalia and Yemen are set to be next. This is the first time in decades that so many large-scale hunger crises have occurred at once. Importantly, $990 million of the new money for humanitarian assistance in the omnibus will go to severe food shortages in these countries. This is critical, as the United Nations has only a fraction of $4.4 billion it needs to address the crisis.

Second, the budget agreement will improve our national security. Refugees fleeing in historic numbers – particularly the Syrian caseload – are destabilizing neighboring countries, changing the domestic politics of U.S. allies and threatening the integrity of the European project. In three of the four countries beset by famine, transnational terrorist organizations are driving or thriving in the same conflict that threatens the food supply. Mass starvation will generate further state collapse, thereby opening more space for the terrorists to operate.

Third, the agreement demonstrates that congressional Republicans and Democrats can come together to resist attempts by the Trump administration to unilaterally disarm the very civilian tools and agencies we need to address these crises. The Trump administration’s so-called skinny budget for 2018 calls for massive cuts in civilian assistance across the State Department and USAID. Ironically, it even zeros out the budget line for the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS) established in 1985 to detect the very type of mass starvation now breaking out across Africa. 

The humanitarian portion of the omnibus constitutes a repudiation of the administration’s vision. In addition to the funding levels, the bill requires the administration to consult with Congress before closing down offices or programs in USAID and the State Department. Republicans on Capitol Hill are showing a new willingness to stand up for America’s role as a global humanitarian leader in the face of Trump’s assault on civilian power. Republican Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Todd Young (Ind.) reportedly played key roles in securing the new money for famine relief. That sort of leadership will be essential in the weeks and months to come. 

However, much remains to be done. The first step will be to pressure the Trump administration to spend the funding. The almost $1 billion in famine assistance is currently being held up at the Office for Management and Budget. Some in the relief community are concerned that the administration is playing games with this money to set the stage for deeper cuts in the FY 2018 budget. But the food security of 20 million people cannot be held hostage to budgetary maneuvering.

The next step will be to reenergize the bipartisan consensus on humanitarian priorities that made the omnibus possible. The Trump administration’s full budget proposal is slated for release on May 23 and congressional budget resolutions for FY2018 are expected as early as June. The White House has made clear that its priorities would be better reflected in the budget for 2018.  So support from both sides of the aisle will be essential to protecting even basic elements of America’s humanitarian response architecture, such as FEWS.  

The omnibus was only the first skirmish in what promises to be a long fight over the future of American soft power. What’s important is that Democrats and Republicans work together to prioritize assistance for the over 85 million people fleeing conflict and facing potential starvation. In doing so, they set an example of cooperation required to push back against worst impulses of the Trump administration. These are the world’s most vulnerable. Caring for them is both the right thing to do by our values and the smart thing to do for our security.

Hardin Lang is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.  He previously served with the United Nations in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Central America, Iraq, and Mali and was head of office for former President Bill Clinton in his role as U.N. special envoy for Haiti.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Bill Clinton Bob Corker Todd Young

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